The Well-Dressed Garden: Border basics

Marty Ross
Universal Uclick
Trilliums and Dutchman's breeches bloom in the soft spring light in this shady flower border, under the graceful arch of a redbud tree. This garden is mostly green in summertime; ferns grow up to fill in as the trilliums disappear until next spring.

Starting on a new flower bed can be a bit intimidating, but successful results are guaranteed if you put a little time into it before you ever pick up your trowel.

        When you're planning a new bed -- whether it's a perennial garden or a mixed bed of trees, shrubs and flowers -- scrutinize your intentions first, says Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. If you know what your overall goals are, it will help you make decisions about the design of the bed and its plantings. Ask yourself whether you're planting a garden bed to admire from afar, a flower bed you'll stroll along every day, or a screen of plants to block an unsightly view. Some flower beds can be approached from both sides and must be designed accordingly, and others you'll really only see from one angle.

        Understanding these things about your new bed will help you to think about how big it should be and the scale of plantings within it, as well as to develop a color scheme.

        Of course, your soil and conditions should be incorporated in this planning process before you start to dig.

        "My big thing is choosing things for your soil," Sherwood says. You can improve any soil by adding compost before you plant, but don't expect plants that love sandy soil to thrive in clay, or the other way around. Work with the soil you have. The same applies to the conditions in your garden: If your bed will be in sun, you need to be looking forward to a garden full of plants that like a sunny spot. And if a flower bed is partly in sun and partly in shade, you'll have to vary your plantings so everything will thrive.

        The first plants you choose for your bed should be the largest ones. "Go for the big stuff," Sherwood says. "Figure out what trees you want, or which shrubs. Make sure those are in place before you go into perennials or bulbs." Trees and shrubs are what really give your bed definition through the seasons.

        Sherwood likes small trees in flower beds, things like fringe trees, crab apples and dogwoods. They have attractive spring blooms, give the bed architecture all year long and won't overpower the other plantings. Large shrubs, such as lilacs, serve the same purposes. "Remember the power of scale," she advises: Small trees will be magnificent specimens when planted in a narrow context. Trees that grow to less than 20 to 25 feet tall are big enough for most beds or borders.

        Evergreens can also be part of the scheme: You could plant dwarf conifers, boxwood or yews, or perhaps a stalwart columnar yew to serve as an evergreen exclamation point among your plantings. If your bed is deeper than four feet, make room for stepping stones, too, so you'll be able to reach a spigot on the far side or walk among the plantings to weed and water when necessary.

        Then, with the largest elements of the bed in place, start working on what's going to be growing around them. Put large perennials toward the back of a flower bed you'll see from only one side, or close to the middle of a bed you'll have a view of from both sides. Small-scale plants "should be planted closest to where your toes are," Sherwood says. Plant perennials in clusters of three or five plants, for plenty of impact, and repeat color elements throughout the garden. Repetition imparts rhythm, continuity and cohesion to your planting scheme.

        It's exciting to be in a garden when everything is in bloom at once, but it's hard to sustain. In the best gardens, there's always something new happening. Peonies and daylilies come and go, each in their season, and coneflowers, salvias, phlox, black-eyed Susans and sedums, to name only a few, all have their turn in the sun. Include lots of plants attractive to pollinators, Sherwood recommends, and your garden will also be full of butterflies and bees.

        If a new flower bed looks a little bare, you can count on annual flowers to fill in the gaps, especially in the first season. Annual salvias, zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and gomphrena bloom all summer long and into the fall. Some will produce seed and come back year after year, finding their own places in the garden.

        Remember, part of the fun of any flower bed is watching it develop, and there will be plenty of chances to stand back and admire your handiwork. There's no hurry: If something doesn't seem quite right, make adjustments. Every garden grows and changes, and your own list of favorite plants will also evolve.

        If you lose a plant to extreme heat or cold, consider it an opportunity to try something new. When small trees grow and create shade in spots that once were sunny, embrace the shade and the plants that thrive in it.

        The planning and planting process is continuous, really, and so is the pleasure you'll have in your new garden bed.

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